Ecuador's President fears for life amid clashes

There were rare scenes of political pandemonium in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, last night as protesters, many of them police officers, surrounded a downtown hospital where the country's President, Rafael Correa, was being treated for injuries received earlier in the day during street scuffles.

Talking to radio stations, President Correa, a leftist who was re-elected to office just last year, claimed that the country was in the throes of a coup and that protesters had reached the roof of the hospital and were intent on coming inside and physically assaulting him or worse. A five-day state of emergency was declared.

"We're faced with a permanent conspiracy," Mr Correa told Radio Publica from inside the hospital. "The opposition are behind this attempted coup d'état." He was wounded after he personally confronted police protesters who are angry about planned government spending cuts, including wage reductions, at a police station. They threw water at him and burned tyres. Reports said he and his wife were stunned by exploding tear gas canisters.

Peru said it had closed its borders with Ecuador and the largest South American airline, Lan Chile, said it was suspending flights to and from the country. Messages of support for the Correa government were sent by regional nations including Argentina, Venezuela and Chile as well as the Organisation of American States.

As the tumultuous day in the country's capital wore on, the Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, urged a large crowd of supporters who had gathered outside the palace to march on the hospital to intercept those trying to reach the President. "President Correa has said that there are people trying to get in from the roof and attack him," Mr Patino yelled to the crowd. "I want to invite the brave people here below to go with us to rescue the President."

The confrontation happened after the President, 48, went out on to the streets and reportedly in a state of visible fury challenged the chanting police officers: "Kill me if you want to. Kill me if you have the courage."

As he stood there, several of the police officers pointed their guns at the President. Their anger was focused on a law passed on Wednesday that cut bonuses for government employees.

Unrest was also reported in the country's second city, Guayaqil, where main access roads were blocked by police protesters. In both cities there were reports of looters ransacking banks and supermarkets. Ecuador's security situation has "degraded significantly," the US embassy in Quito said in an alert posted on its website. The embassy urged all US nationals to stay inside.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez posted a message on Twitter urging supporters in Ecuador to stand by their President.

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